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'Networking in Sweden needs more guanxi'

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A woman meets Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg at a conference in Beijing. Photo: Andy Wong/TT
08:22 CET+01:00
Jimmy Zhao, CEO and founder of mentoring app Lunchback, argues that the fast-paced Swedish startup community needs to learn from Chinese traditions when it comes to relationship-building.

You might have just landed in this beautiful Nordic country, or you might have been living here for quite many years. Either way, let's be brutally honest: networking in Sweden is broken.

People try to network at some of the many different mingle events, and spend a lot of time trying to find new people to add to their social media profiles. But how efficient are these events? Do you get much out of them? I never did.

When I came to Sweden around 10 years ago I invested a lot of time in networking and meeting people. I made so many 'hi-bye' friends at these events – more than you could imagine.

In the culture I grew up in, people value 'guanxi' – a Chinese word describing a deep, meaningful connection. Mentorship and knowledge exchange is valued so highly that there is an old Chinese proverb: “Being a mentor for one day, means a lifetime fatherhood.”

For this reason, relationship-building is a big part of business and social culture in China. When I first came to Sweden, I was far from my family and friends, and my biggest worry was that I would not be able to find success as an entrepreneur without the right 'guanxi'.

Everyone wants success, and no one is born knowing how to get it. The way to learn is to ask the ones who have been there and done that. Successful people say that finding a mentor is the biggest factor in achieving success. We can't learn the hard lessons all by ourselves, and we can't pick up the huge amount of implicit knowledge in a business community by ourselves. We all need help from someone in order to learn.

Needing others is not a weakness; it's a strength. Your ability to copy someone successful is the biggest predictor of your own success. It has been said that good artists copy but great artists steal. Most of the people who were successful had mentors. Albert Einstein had lunch with his mentor every Thursday. Bill Gates had Paul Allen and Warren Buffet had Benjamin Graham.

Here is the golden rule of networking: you shall spend your time in thirds.

Spend one third of your time mentoring the people who are not as knowledgeable as you are, and they will return the favour by making you feel good about yourself.

Spend one third of your time with people who are on the same level as you, because they will give you a new perspective on the things you (think you) already know.

Spend one third of your time with people who are a decade or two ahead of you, because they will make you uncomfortable but teach you the secrets of their success.

You may be asking yourself, why would successful people want to meet a person like me? You may doubt that you could be interesting to them, and you might be afraid they will reject you. They might. But there are some strategies you can use to get them interested. First, be humble. You are asking them for something, and it's best to be up front about that. Second, persevere. Keep trying, and don't take No for an answer. At least not the first half-dozen times.

Guanxi is the connecting force in the world, and I want to create more of it. This is the reason that we started Lunchback, an app that can be used to find yourself a mentor in your local area. From this experience, we know that successful people who want to be mentors are available and interested in helping more junior people to succeed and progress in their careers.

Networking should not be about fleeting encounters, it should be about creating community. The most valuable social capital is the intimate, supportive relationships that spur collaboration while deeply satisfying our human need for connection, belonging and meaning.

These are the rules we should all live by:

1. Inspire and teach others with great stories, and be ready to learn from them too.

2. Build friendships, not just hi-bye relationships.

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3. Show love: appreciate the mentoring and love who you are.

4. Have fun: the unexpected moments are often the most fun and most meaningful.

You will be surprised at how willing other people are to meet you in real life – all you have to do is ask for it in a safe environment. Mentorship is the shortcut to your success. It won't come easy, it still takes a lot of hard work, but this difficulty is what makes success worth celebrating.

Remember this equation: your success in life = the people you meet + what you create together.

Jimmy Zhao is the CEO and founder of Lunchback.

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